Lingua Franca

By Kate Brannen / September 23, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Brigade commanders echoed a recent New York Times op-ed today when they stressed how important interpreters are to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think the most important thing we could do to improve our operations dramatically in both Iraq and Afghanistan is increase the number of competent interpreters and to make sure that the contractors who provide interpreters, provide interpreters who speak English as well," said Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, speaking today at a counterinsurgency conference in Washington hosted by the Marines Corps University.

While this last point elicited laughter from the audience, McMaster and his fellow panel members emphasized the essential role interpreters play in counterinsurgency environments where local information and human intelligence are crucial to good decision-making.

An audience member asked the panel how much foreign language training soldiers and Marines need before they deploy.

"I think a commander needs a working vocabulary to be polite and make the effort to talk to people and greet them in their language," said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel, who's now a military history professor at Ohio State University. But, beyond that, a commander has to rely on an interpreter, he said.

"It is dangerous for a commander, unless he is fluent, to rely on his limited capabilities in some of these situations," said Mansoor. Misinterpretations and misunderstandings can cause serious setbacks, he added.